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Sunken Treasure Makes Homecoming Visit from Sweden

Chinese archaeologists involved in the exploration of a shipwreck on the sea floor off the coast of East China's Fujian Province have so far kept their discoveries a closely guarded secret.

All that can be discerned from a few television clips is that they are about to unveil a handsome haul of 18th century blue-white porcelain.

But it will be some time before details of the whole quarry of fine porcelain from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) made for the European market are revealed.

In the meantime the new exhibition at the front gate of the Forbidden City, which served as the seat of imperial power during the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911), in the heart of Beijing is home to valuable Swedish porcelain from the same era.

The show, which opened yesterday, is entitled "Century Collection: Spirit Back to China Exhibition of Sweden's Collection of Chinese Porcelain."

"I am very happy really to see all these Chinese porcelain back in China again," Jan-Erik Nilsson, a Swedish scholar specializing in Chinese porcelain, told China Daily yesterday at the show's opening.

He said it should serve as an eye opener for the Chinese collectors as most have never appeared in China.

The 181 sets of cultural relics on display transport visitors back to more than two centuries ago.

Mystery of a sunken ship

Examining blue and white dishes and plates salvaged in the late 1980s off the coast of Sweden, visitors may find themselves trying to unravel the mystery of why the ship Gotheborg sank just 900 metres off the coast of its home port of Gothenburg.

The ship had been the largest vessel owned by the Swedish East Indian Company in the 18th century, according to Jan-Erik Nilsson, who created and manages the antique Chinese porcelain collector's page online at http://www.gotheborg.com.

Starting in 1743, the ship sailed through storms and around the Cape of Good Hope over two and a half years.

On September 12, 1745, she was about to complete her third successful voyage to Canton (Guangzhou) in South China and back, with a full cargo of tea, spices, silks and porcelain.

"She struck the well-known underwater reef the Hunnebadan just alongside the main navigation channel and a mere 900 meters from the fortress of Nya Elfsborg," Nilsson explained.

Although no seaman lost his life, the ship sank fast. It was not until 1986 that Swedish archaeologists were able to carry out serious investigations and finally bring the fine china to land.

Nilsson explained that there were attempts made to salvage the ship's treasures in the past. He quoted Bagge, director of a diving company, who reported in 1746 that he and his colleagues gave up salvaging efforts because "the remaining cargo was under an impenetrable cover of soggy tea leaves that was impossible to get through."

Indeed, archaeologists discovered by the end of the project in 1991 that the majority of the porcelain cargo remained since "it was covered by 300 tons (dry weight) of tea leaves," Nilsson said.

Researchers recovered at least six tons of porcelain shards. Only 300 complete items were brought to the surface, representing a small portion of the cargo.

China collection, a fashion

The porcelain salvaged from the sunken Gotheborg showcases expert craftsmanship. Quite a number of pieces on display are exotic and bear a designer's touch. These reflect a time, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it became fashionable to collect Chinese porcelain in Europe.

In his article "China and Sweden Through a Thousand Years," Bo Gyllensvard, the former curator of the Swedish Royal Collection of Chinese Art, stated that by the end of the 17th century, royals including Queen Kristina, some aristocrats and wealthy people in Sweden had collections of Chinese porcelain, lacquer and various items arranged in special rooms "a la Chinoise."

The Europeans were also able to order pieces with their own signature designs for Chinese craftsmen to follow. Between the 17th and 18th centuries most exported Chinese porcelain was destined for Europe.

Many believe Chinese porcelain making reached its zenith at that time. Meanwhile, craftsmen, artists and architects from Europe came to China, some able to work in the Forbidden City to introduce Western artistic media to the Chinese.

The current exhibition of the valuable Swedish collection of Chinese artefacts, running for three months, has received sponsorship from Volvo Truck Company, North Europe Airlines and Beijing Royal Grand Hotel.

When the exhibition ends, Volvo Group will donate 18 pieces of porcelain worth 500,000 Swedish krona (US$64,200) to the Forbidden City.

It is a relief that the fine china's homecoming will "bring some happiness back in the people's life," Nilsson said.

(China Daily September 27, 2005)

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